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forests > features > forest profile: vo quy - the smiling pioneer

Forest profile: Vo Quy - the smiling pioneer

Posted: 01 Aug 2000

by Elizabeth Kemf

Elizabeth Kemf of the World Wide Fund for Nature, has spent much time working and reporting on conservation efforts in war-torn Vietnam. Here she reports on the country's star conservationist, Professor Vo Quy.

For years he has been known in Vietnam as "the professor with a smile" and greeted warmly by his former students wherever he travelled. Today Vo Quy is recognized by practically everyone as the "star" conservationists of one of Vietnam's favourite television programmes. Twice a week his face beams out across the country and he explains in simple language the mysteries of nature and why his country people should protect it.

Whether in remote village restaurants or international airports people come up to him just to shake his hand and thank him for his show - and for leading his country's regreening movement. Because of his youthful appearance and seemingly boundless energy it is hard to believe that Vo Quy has been spreading the conservation message for nearly 50 years. He began this almost half a century ago, when while still a teenager, he became the first teacher in his village's first school. When he returns to his home Province of Ha Tinh in central Vietnam, children follow him like the Pied Piper and call him "Uncle Vo".

Vo Quy with forest guards in the Ho Ke Go nature reserve::� Elizabeth Kemf
Vo Quy with forest guards in the Ho Ke Go nature reserve
� Elizabeth Kemf

The country's preeminent environmentalist and the winner of a number of international awards including WWF, IUCN, and UNEP's highest honours, Vo Quy was born in 1929 in one of the country's poorest provinces. In 1951, during the period of the Vietnamese uprising against French Colonial rule, he walked to China where he and his colleagues set up a temporary university. After completing his degree he walked back and resumed teaching in his home province. In 1956 Vo Quy founded, with a group of fellow academics the University of Hanoi and established the Department of Zoology, of which he later became head. For years he was Dean of the Faculty of Biology, and in 1985 he founded the country's first conservation and management training centre, CRES (Centre for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies).

Planting trees

After completing his Ph.D in ornithology at the University of Moscow in 1966, he published the Birds of Vietnam, for which he was honoured by his university with first prize for conservation achievement in 1982. He has also published a children's book The Birds are our Friends. In 1985 he compiled, as the leader of a team of scientists from all over the nation, Vietnam's National Conservation Strategy. Less than a decade later the World Conservation Union's Phillips Award recognized him for mobilizing the Vietnamese people to plant some 160,000 ha of trees annually, to help rehabilitate some 2.2 million ha of forest and farmland destroyed during the US/Vietnam conflict.

Thanks to Vo Quy - who led the first team of environmental scientists south of the 17th parallel to investigate the environmental damage caused during the war - almost every school student in Vietnam plants one to three trees per year as part of the school curriculum. He has not only inspired the next generation of conservationists but also trained several generations of them. He operated his conservation centre on a shoestring budget and undertook activities for which the government did not have money, particularly when it was recovering from the ravages of war.

Women collecting firewood in Ho Ke Go forest::� Elizabeth Kemf
Women collecting firewood in Ho Ke Go forest
� Elizabeth Kemf

One of his first tasks was to restore degraded land in the midlands of Vietnam through community based agroforestry systems. He also led the drive to establish the country's first system of national parks and protected areas, persuaded Vietnam to become the first country in Southeast Asia to join RAMSAR, raised funds for researching and publishing the country's first red data book of endangered and threatened species, named a new species of pheasant, and created through his centre the first post graduate training course for protected area managers. The centre also offers courses in environmental impact assessment training and conservation and agricultural methods on steep mountain slopes. The latter addresses the needs of the country's indigenous people who represent around 12 per cent of the population.

Vo Quy's latest project in his home province, not far from the area where the Sao La and the Giant Muntjac were named to science recently, is in the village of Ky Thuong near the Ho Ke Go Reservoir. Ho Ke Go is a model of how to conserve biological diversity through and with villagers. With this project Vo Quy is breaking new ground again, creating a prototype that can be adapted throughout the country if not the world.

The Vietnamese government declared the forests near Ho Ke Go as a nature reserve, but had no money in the central coffers to protect them. These forests are the home of the Ha Tinh or Vo Quy's pheasant as it is fondly called after the "son of Ha Tinh Province". During the war it was thought that the pheasant and several other species of birds and mammals had become extinct, as the region along the Ho Chi Minh trail, was one of the most heavily bombed during 30 years of uninterrupted warfare. But in 1990 villagers in the Ho Ke Go area caught some Ha Tinh pheasants which gave scientists new hope for their survival. Those that managed to escape the local dinner plates were taken to the Hanoi Zoo - where a successful captive breeding programme is underway.

Logging versus replanting in Vietnam::� Vo Quy/Elizabeth Kemf
Logging versus replanting in Vietnam
� Vo Quy/Elizabeth Kemf

In Ho Ke Go the priority for protection is the habitat of the pheasant and other species of plants and animals including the giant muntjac, tiger, and elephant. When Vo Quy was invited by the district to help conserve the home of the pheasant and to reduce hunting and logging pressure on the forest he took what might be considered an usual approach in Vietnam, "bottom-up, not top-down," as he describes it.

"You have to listen to the people, you have to let them decide what they need, what they want, and how they want to get it," explains Vo Quy. "First you have to use this," he says pointing to his eyes. Observation is key, then listening, then thinking, but above all letting the villagers determine what they need. That has been the key to the success of the Ho Ke Go project in taking pressure off the forest - and maintaining the watershed - and improving the economic conditions of the villagers living in the buffer zone of the reserve.

Village loans

In the past two years Vo Quy with his team of project managers has introduced a new strain of rice, developed with the Rice Institute in Hanoi, and increased production by between 15-20 per cent. The project has also initiated beekeeping and fruit tree farming and established co-operatives to market the products, created tree nurseries using indigenous species, set up a community guard system to patrol the forest, constructed small dams tapping them with mini-hydroelectric units, and improved irrigation. None of this is for free. The villagers take out interest free loans which they repay with their increased earnings.

This May, Vo Quy and I visited Ho Ke Go with the director of Oro Verde, Dr Manfred Niekisch, who put up the seed money to get the project started. We showed the villagers a film about the project, and which they helped make last summer. Hundreds of people gathered in the mayor's house to watch, to discover themselves on the TV screen powered by the newly installed hydro-electric power plant. The screening gave rise to euphoria at first. But one village woman observed: "In the film our village looks more beautiful than it is. We are still poor, and the six other villages around us are also poor. We are grateful but we have a long way to go."

The professor smiled as crowds gathered around him waiting for his reply. He announced that he had been given a Pew Scholarship Award from the University of Michigan in the United States. The project would continue and it would expand until it eventually reached all 35,000 people living around the reserve. The mood grew optimistic. The group asked to watch the film once more.

Vo Quy left the proud community to view its achievements while he went off to inspect the new tree nursery. There among the saplings in less than an hour the village leaders told him what the community needs were: to finish construction of the school, improve the health centre, and to multiply the effects of the project to include additional families. Vo Quy listened patiently, letting the people decide.

Elizabeth Kemf is Species Conservation Co-ordinator at WWF International in Gland, Switzerland and author of Month of Pure Light: the Regreening of Vietnam, on which several documentary films have been based.

© People & the Planet 2000 - 2007
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